Alternate Reality Teaching (ART) is a new way of providing experiential learning by creating a realistic, largely unbounded virtual experience that plays out over the course of weeks or months. While experiencing it, students put ideas from cases and lectures into practice. This ties together the full set of skills learned in the classroom by placing them in a highly designed and customizable shared environment. Students form teams, without assigned roles, and reaction to a scenario being played in real time via email, files, and instant messaging. The students interact with each other and non-player characters (NPCs) as they make decisions and encounter obstacles.

ARTs can connect hundreds, or even thousands, of students together in scenario that plays out over the course of a semester (or longer). Unlike traditional simulations, ART cuts across classes and unify them into a whole without having one “right” answer programmed by the simulation designer. ARTs are also designed to be “slow burn” – a few hours a week, usually – and requires little to no modification of classes or pedagogical techniques. Furthermore, ART scenarios need not be limited to a region, class, or even MBAs.

We have built a platform and story engine, called Looking Glass, that allows the easy creation and management of ARTs. Students have access to email, chat, video chat, and files -- all of which work like standard software products, but which are monitored and controlled by the ART system. We also have a powerful scenario editor for creating new ARTs, a game master interface for running games, and a reporting system for giving students feedback and generating data for academic research.

Our first ART built on the platform, an entrepreneurship simulation for MBAs, is complete, and has been run with hundreds of students. Engagement is very high, and learning outcomes are also above expectations.



Many courses attempt to teach concepts best learned over a period of time in a single lecture. Experiencing these concepts, and reacting in a realistic setting, makes for a much better learning environment but this has generally been impractical in many courses of study.

ART was designed, from the start, to offer a solution to this seemingly intractable problem of marrying classroom learning with 'real world' experience. The real world, in the form of internships and other programs, offer invaluable learning opportunities but they happen in an uncontrolled environment. It is impossible to ensure that a student learns lessons that support coursework in a work setting. ART allows an instructor to create a custom tailored scenario designed to compliment, and support, in classroom learning. The students interact with non-player characters, and each other, to solve problems turning theory into practice.

The instructor, along with teaching assistants, can take over the role of non-player characters to answer questions, reinforce lessons, and add challenges. In our first ART, the entrepreneurship simulation, students were placed in the role of entrepreneurs after the company founder that hired them mysteriously quits. Using our platform over three weeks in real time, students navigated strategic issues, legal challenges, personnel decisions, and a wide variety of other scenarios. This ART covers dozens of learning objectives. Students learn how to split equity, pivot from one market to another, deal with competitors in an emerging industry, and even how to deal with the press.

Activity within the ART is graded, and time is dedicated to debriefing the experience in class as a capstone. This allows for instructors to introduce concepts in a lecture and have their students encounter a situation where they can immediately apply that knowledge enforcing the lesson.


Given the scope and open nature envisioned for the ART scenarios it was clear that a multi-disciplined team would be needed to create the Looking Glass platform. The planning stages included the faculty creator (Prof. Ethan Mollick) partnering with the Wharton Learning Lab's team of technologists, programmers, and designers to craft both the technical requirements for the platform as well as the look and feel of the game itself.

Once the technical details were outlined and being working, the mechanics of the game itself along with the entire world encompassed in the ART scenario needed to be built. Several writers crafted fleshed out characters, companies, hundreds of pages of storyboards, and assets (including emails sent within the game and real websites for the in game companies). A Penn Law professors to help design the legal parts of the scenario. A team in Hollywood (including an actress from the Mindy Project and writer from Parks and Recreation) collaborated with us to create videos and we involved a number of students and alumni in helping craft scenarios. Even spouses pitched in to act as characters from the game and had conference calls with students playing the game.

A whole range of new teaching approaches were introduced in ART: badges, achievements and leaderboards motivate and guide students; students can be pseudonymous in order to experiment with new leadership styles in low risk settings (several female students reported that role-playing as men has helped them refine their own approach to leading groups); and an elaborate world that encompasses dozens of websites built just for the game (as you can see by searching for 'crossmorphic sensor', our fake technology) allows students to use the same tools they would in real start-ups in the simulation.


Engagement is very high. Over the course of around two weeks in the virtual world of the ART, 110 students logged in for 1,532 days of time. During that time they sent 2,056 emails and 12,060 chat messages.

The ability to use aliases and avatars also increased engagement. Five of the 20 top students were women playing as men, while 4 were men playing as women. The freedom to assume new identities allowed students to experiment with leadership techniques.

This speaks to the immersive nature of ART. As the students interact with each other and the non-player characters they discover how fleshed out the world they are in is. This, in turn, makes them want to delve even deeper. For example, the students in the Entrepreneurship ART join an existing company whose founder suddenly leaves. They have the opportunity to rename the company and upload custom logos. Many teams, spend considerable time crafting a new logo and company name because they identify as a start-up.

Further, gamification keeps students engaged. To quote the feedback from one student: "œThe "gamification" aspect of Looking Glass was really well done. The badge system was addicting. I kept wanting to get new badges to one-up competition. I just wish that there had actually been MORE to do: more tasks, more obstacles, more possible directions to take the company in, more badges (perhaps an additional week or two of Looking Glass)."


Our first ART has transformed the way we are teaching entrepreneurship, since it allows us to give students an accurate simulation of startup life beyond just the idea generation stage. We provide learning through a variety of methods: how characters react in-game, teacher's comments that appear outside of the game, and post-game discussion. The result is a truly multi-method learning experience. In total, the entrepreneurship game covers more than two dozen learning objectives, from concrete material like how to pitch a startup, to complex engagement with academic concepts like legitimation processes.

To give an example of the pedagogical impact, I spend time early in every entrepreneurship class teaching about the importance of setting up the founding team for success. I think it is one of my better class sessions, in that it "blended": integrating a case discussion, my research, videos, and bits of lectures. Yet, in the simulation, a critical factor is to set up the founding team, and perhaps not surprisingly, I found very few people were actually able to apply the theory from the class. However, once they saw what happened in the simulation when they did not apply these lessons, I could see the lights turn on in people's eyes, and it led to one of the more intense discussions of founding conditions I have seen, both among the students on Looking Glass, and in our classroom debrief. It is worth bearing in mind that this is a relatively small learning objective in the overall simulation.

ARTs allow a new, rich experience for structured experiential learning inside and outside of the classroom.

Next Steps

Our next steps focus on scaling ARTs. First, we are looking to create a process and methodology for creating compelling, theoretically sound ARTs using the Looking Glass engine, so that we can easily create ARTs for a wide range of topics. In particular, we are working to build a Capstone ART that integrates teaching from a diverse set of classes (from business ethics to accounting to strategy) into a single simulation.

We are also examining ways to create a MOOC ART, and the platform was designed to scale to MOOC levels. Teaching this way presents its own challenges, and a persistent simulation has never been done at this scale. We believe that an ART offers a new way of approaching MOOC instruction.

Other Information

PDF - Click to download
Return to Awards